Lievremont left to count cost of overseas shopping spree
Down on the beaches beside the Mediterranean or on the Atlantic coast, bikinis still rule the day. The summer sun shines down and no one is thinking of winter.
Yet tomorrow evening, not halfway through August, the 2010-11 French rugby season begins. We can be sure it will start in a pool of sweat with players' faces as red as lobsters.
To alleviate the traditional high temperatures of August in the south of France -- the heartland of French rugby -- most matches will not begin until 8.0 at night. A cool beer or two at a pavement cafe in the town at Castres, a glass beside the port at Toulon or a cafe noir overlooking the Atlantic at Biarritz ... then off to the rugby. It is certainly an alluring prospect.
Yet for French rugby, the seriousness begins at once. By the time this season ends with the Top 14 final in Paris on June 4, there will be just three months left before the 2011 World Cup begins.
This, then, is a critical season in France and especially for national coach Marc Lievremont. It must be a matter of deep concern to Lievremont that the key signings of the off-season, as far as France's Top 14 clubs are concerned, again involve overseas players.
It has been a similar story in England for years; France has now well and truly caught the bug.
New Zealand prop Carl Hayman, Auckland Blues wing Rudi Wulf, Australian flanker George Smith and England wing Paul Sackey have arrived at Toulon, the quartet combining to further stretch owner Mourad Boudjellal's already ravaged wallet. The man who made his fortune from comic books has, hopefully, seen the funny side of investing millions yet seeing his side come up short, losing in the semi-finals of last season's championship.
Undeterred, Boudjellal has splashed even more cash on star recruits in a bid to land Toulon's first French title for almost 20 years. The pressure on coach Philippe Saint-Andre will be immense.
Another moneybags club, Racing Metro 92, have made an equally big signing in Argentine Juan Martin Hernandez, from the Sharks in Durban. He will form a top-quality half-back pairing with another newcomer, scrum-half Nicolas Durand, a champion of France in 2009 with Perpignan.
Reigning champions Clermont Auvergne have been circumspect in their recruitment, but the two key men they have bought bring New Zealand class and drive. No 8 Sione Lauaki comes from the Waikato Chiefs with something of a bad-boy reputation but quality undisputed. If his fellow Kiwi, coach Vern Cotter, can get Lauaki to focus on rugby, Clermont will have made perhaps the top signing of the summer. Crusaders hooker Ti'i Paulo also joins them.
Other New Zealanders have also come to France, presumably for the weather and the challenge. Couldn't possibly be anything to do with the money, could it?
Ex-All Black Troy Flavell has left the Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Japan for Bayonne, in the heart of the Basque country. Veteran Andrew Mehrtens is hoping to continue his career at Brive, after leaving Racing Metro in Paris.
There are, amid this overseas shopping glut, some French players still around. But the number of overseas players and the focus of the clubs in recruiting so many big-name foreign stars has to concern Lievremont.
For example, three of the first five props voted as the best in the Top 14 by the respected 'Midi Olympique' newspaper are non-French -- Campbell Johnstone, Biarritz's New Zealander, Stade Toulouse's Daan Human of South Africa, and Clermont Auvergne's Georgian Davit Zirakashvili.
Then there are the out-halves, crucial players in any side. Many of the best clubs have foreigners in this critical position: Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon), Hernandez (Racing Metro) and Brock James (Clermont) to mention three. Others will follow.
France must hope that Montpellier No 10 Francois Trinh-Duc stays fit and in form. But as to whether he is really the player to launch the backline of the national team, the jury remains out.
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